With audacious hypocrisy, American pro-nuclear pundits have been indulging in the familiar sport of losers – the relentless bashing of the more successful.
With nuclear energy rapidly losing favor around the globe, the industry’s boosters have taken to blaming countries that have rejected it for worsening climate change. Top of the target list? Germany, which has vowed to generate 80-100% of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2050; and Japan, which chose this month not to restart the last of its 54 nuclear reactors.
The accusation that these countries are worsening climate change is pretty rich coming from US commentators. By any measure – whether calculating total CO2 emissions or per capita – the US is one of the worst offenders on the planet. Among major nations, the US trails only Australia (almost exclusively reliant on coal) in emissions per capita at 17.7 tonnes per year (based on US Energy Information Administration 2009 data). Japan and Germany rank 37th and 38th respectively. China recently overtook the US in both total CO2 and total greenhouse gas emissions. But the US remains in commanding second place, responsible for 17.8% of the world’s total CO2 emissions and 15.7% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
By contrast, Japan’s 2009 CO2 emissions stood at 3.6% of the world’s total. Germany’s were at 2.5%. While a greenhouse gas emissions increase is bad news for the planet no matter where it occurs, the US should put its own carbon emissions house in order before criticizing others. Even if both Japan and Germany’s emissions were to rise significantly, they will continue to trail the US by a large margin.
With the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster prompting an overwhelming public rejection of continued reliance on nuclear power in Japan, the country is scrambling to institute a rapid renewable energy program while relying in the near-term on energy efficiency, and especially on conservation. Inevitably, with few home-grown energy resources in operation, Japan will also import fossil fuels. Critics decry this as leading to an inevitable increase in CO2 emissions. This may well turn out to be the case for a time. But nuclear energy is the cause of this, not the solution.
Japan, like the US, France and others, had the choice not to put all its eggs in the atomic basket when it made nuclear energy a national strategic priority in the early 1970s. But, in choosing to rely so profoundly on the most dangerous method ever invented to boil water, Japan left itself nowhere to go when the inevitable happened – an industry-ending deadly disaster that made nuclear energy publicly unacceptable. Consequently, it is Japan’s historic reliance on nuclear energy which will now cause it, at least temporarily, to increase its greenhouse gas emissions. Had it turned to renewables earlier and integrated them sooner, this would not be the case. Instead, before Fukushima, Japan was on the path to increasing nuclear energy’s 30% share of electricity production to 50% by 2030.
The motivation for Japan’s nuclear choice, despite having foresworn nuclear weapons, was likely rooted in military, rather than civilian energy priorities. The US arrived at a similar crossroads in 1952 when President Truman’s blue ribbon commission on energy – dubbed the Paley Commission after its chairman – concluded that nuclear power could deliver only a modest fraction of American energy requirements at best. Instead, the commission strongly recommended “aggressive research in the whole field of solar energy – an effort in which the United States could make an immense contribution to the welfare of the world.” It predicted that such a commitment could heat 13 million homes and offices by 1975.
Instead, incoming President Eisenhower took a different path, likely prompted by Cold War politics and the so-called “prestige” of the atom. His program, “Atoms for Peace,” killed the chances of US worldwide pre-eminence in renewable energy development and instead condemned the country to reliance on the three big polluters – coal, oil and nuclear – the predicament in which we find ourselves today. Again, our fatal contribution to the current climate crisis was made worse by the early decision to favor nuclear energy over renewables.
The criticisms of Germany are highly misplaced since they ignore several key facts: The European Union has imposed a carbon emissions cap which means that Germany is legally bound not to exceed this and therefore cannot increase its carbon emissions; Germany’s plan to reach 100% renewable energy by 2050 means it is winding down – not expanding – use of all fossil and fissile fueled electricity generators between now and then; and, even though Germany will still bring on new coal plants in the next decade, these are replacing older, far more CO2 intensive coal plants, thereby still not increasing German emissions.
In reality, Germany continues to reduce its carbon emissions – by 2.1% last year with eight reactors shut down – while solar power output increased by 60 percent in 2011.
In conclusion, it is not the relinquishing of nuclear power that is worsening climate change. It is having focused so predominantly on that energy source in the first place – one that is unsustainable, non-renewable and, when it goes drastically wrong, demonstrably counter-productive from all perspectives including environmentally, morally, financially and technologically.
Finally, as a popular billboard now making the rounds of Facebook, states: “When there’s a huge solar energy spill, it’s just called a ‘nice day.’”
Linda Pentz Gunter is a founder of Beyond Nuclear and its international specialist. For more, see www.beyondnuclear.org.